I like to think I have pretty wide-ranging taste in music and the older I get the less I care if something is “cool” or not. But I don’t think I’ll ever get old enough to completely lose the feeling there’s something wrong with liking anything that’s Hippie, Proggy, Folky, Soft-Rocky, or just generally made by people with beards and long hair. It’s like my teenage self is still lurking in my brain telling me I that didn’t live through the Punk wars to grow up with an appreciation of Fleetwood Mac.
This is partly due to reading the 1978 book The Boy Looked At Johnny by rock-journalism enfant terribles Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons at an impressionable age. Subtitled The Obituary of Rock and Roll, it had the same scorched-earth approach to Rock history they were famous for in the NME every week: demolishing it’s legends as self-indulgent wankers and posers, with particular ire directed at American bands and the Woodstock generation. In their world, almost everything that wasn’t Motown or the first two Sex Pistols singles was worthless. If Punk was a revolution, Burchill and Parsons were the loyal soldiers putting people up against the wall.
Written at the height of Punk and with the righteousness of young people (Burchill was only 19), the book opens with the line “Bob Dylan broke his neck — close, but no cigar” and goes on from there in an amphetamine-fueled rush of bile. The 1960s were “a decade of iron-lung dinosaurs washing their hands in the blood of teen idealism”, Jimi Hendrix was the hippies’ “Token Tom”, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop “closet cases fronting amateur-hour wimp bands”, Elton John a “fat old Tin Pan Alley tunesmith” — you get the drift.
But it wasn’t just the old guard that got knifed, the new bands they called the “pretenders to The Pistols inviolate throne” fared no better. Siouxsie Sioux was a “white girl high on fascist flirtation”, The Damned “a shoddy mob of burlesque queens”, Paul Weller “the Barry McGuire of Punk”, The Clash “pious mannequins”, and like all good British radicals at the time they really, really, really hated America, declaring “English Punk bands want to be the best — American punk bands want to be the richest”.
They also spent a whole chapter extolling the superiority of amphetamines over heroin, marijuana, and cocaine, because it is “the only drug that makes you sit up and ask questions rather than lie down and lap up answers”.
These days we’re used to this kind of provocative attitude-striking on the Internet. Some kid will proudly declare he thinks The Beatles are overrated — always ending with the smug flourish “There. I said it” — as if he’s committing a revolutionary act. But that kind of rhetoric bomb-throwing was fairly new back then, and matched the passions the music stirred up. It might seem very childish and reductive now, but was thrilling stuff when you’re 16 and I ate it up. They gave me the language to take the piss out of my Dad for liking The Eagles, and the attitude to sneer at the kids at school who were into Genesis and Led Zep. Most importantly, they gave me a finely-tuned bullshit detector when it comes to rock stars, and I still believe it’s the duty of the young to be skeptical about the idols of the previous generation, not revere them.
One of the few people to come out of the book with any praise is Poly Styrene who they say “was blessed with the finest imagination of her generation” — an opinion that is still true today.
Download: Oh Bondage Up Yours! – X-Ray Spex (mp3)